Monday, April 7, 2008

Just Because You Can Doesn't Make It Right

When I’m not singing, I enjoy exploring music through research and writing. But my “real” work is as a consultant, providing technical research and writing services to clients in the insurance and risk management professions. My research service includes competitive intelligence; that is, gathering (through legal and ethical means) information about my clients’ competitors. One of the companies I track on a daily basis is…my own business! It’s important to know if -- and how -- my name or the names of my business ventures appear online and in "the press," including in blogs and via links from other websites.

Yesterday I was surprised to find that I had been quoted in an article that had been published recently on a major business information site. My surprise escalated into shock as I read the article. The writer had supposedly contacted "ten top-notch safety professionals" to obtain recommendations in answer to a specific management question. Not only had this writer never contacted me to obtain a quote, but she attributed specific words to me, located my business in the wrong city, and portrayed me as a safety professional, which I am not. While I do serve the safety profession with research and writing services, I do not have credentials or training of a safety professional, and I would never present myself as such. This is comparable to a medical librarian presenting himself as a physician, or a technical librarian presenting herself as an engineer. It is, as my daughter says, bad form.

Now, normally I would be delighted to be quoted as an “expert” in an article which appears on a prominent website and which is syndicated to several top news organization, as this one was. But the inaccuracies in this article could actually damage my reputation among my risk management clientele, all of whom take integrity and professionalism seriously (as do I). Free PR is great, but only if it is correct and ethically done and only if it supports one’s business goals.

I contacted the business web site and talked to a staff editor. I am sad to report that it took a fair amount of explaining to convince the editor that the writer had behaved improperly and that some action should be taken. The blatant lies in this article made me wonder about the veracity of the other quotes in the article, and by extension, I now question the quality and utility of all the reference materials on this well-known website. The site’s managing editor told me that it is "hard to keep track of so many bloggers and freelancers." The editor's workload is not a sufficient or acceptable reason for allowing this writer's blatantly fabricated material to be presented as sound business advice. The editor is responsible for ensuring that the material posted on the site is fair, accurate, and legal, and in this case, he failed.

I called the writer (an independent freelancer) and expressed my concern and outrage. Politely. She confessed that in preparing the article in question, she had "recycled" (her word) an article that she had written five years ago (!) in which she had also "quoted" me. When I confronted her on that, pointing our that she had never contacted me five years ago or at any time, she further confessed that she had taken my words from a post I had made years ago to an online risk management discussion list (now defunct). I had a few strong words for her about professional responsibility and her choice to forgo integrity and honesty in favor of cobbling together a quick article. (I spoke politely but with what my daughter calls “the icy daggers” in my voice.) Ironically, this “writer” is an insurance professional who, one presumes, would understand and employ good risk management techniques. If she cannot practice sound risk management, what business does she have providing risk management advice to others? The simplicity of electronic "publishing" makes it easy for her to set herself up as an expert.

The web editor promised to remove the fabricated quote from the article and from the several places where it had been syndicated. [As of April 16, 2008, the article is still available online because older versions are cached for several weeks. It's not easy to herd chickens.] He also promised to “speak to” the writer. Will a “speaking to” help her to choose ethical and honest behavior? Maybe my “icy daggers” will inspire her to be a good and honest writer from now on.

Electronic technology makes it easy to "create" and "publish" almost anything, but it does not necessarily help people achieve quality work. It seems that many people have confused technology with talent. They believe that because they can "copy and paste" with ease, they must be as richly creative as the writers whose material they have appropriated. They believe that because they can disseminate "information" quickly and inexpensively, they are "writers" and have "published" articles here and there.

Those of us who are professional researchers, readers, and writers have learned to veer past the fluff and get to the information that real people create with real thinking and real effort.

1 comment:

  1. Sarah, I so enjoyed your "icy daggers" article! As a high school librarian, I had frequent difficulties convincing students that COPYING THE WORK OF OTHERS and passing it off as one's own was not acceptable, or worse. What an uphill battle! Shocking to hear that adults (my former students perhaps?) continue the practice. Phyllis Satter


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